Liar – published in The Pygmy Giant
Push – published in Ink, Sweat and Tears
Sex God – published in Every Day Fiction
Say My Name – published in Word Riot
Watching, Listening – published in 3 :AM
Seconds Are Ticking By – published in Smokelong
(First published in Metazen)
It ended with sparklers but it started with a shoebox and a Barbie doll.
It ended with me, in the autumn, but it started with my sister in the spring. When it was warm and the grass here was green. There were no muddy patches back then.
Yes. It started with my sister. I was older. I was the eldest. The one who showed her things. Our parents were caring but busy and clumsy too. It’s an odd responsibility, being an eldest child.
If I’m being totally honest it probably began before that spring – when Grandma died. Cancer. Neither of us understood it properly, but being the eldest, I understood it better. I guess I had to. She was not coming back. No more treats. No more chocolate bars or 10p mixes. No more jelly that tasted as much of cigarettes as it did of plastic strawberries or limes. I explained it to Claire as best I could.
Claire did not go to the funeral. I did. After, she invited me into her room – second time in as many days. Her Barbies were laid out on the carpet in front of her. She crossed her legs and asked me to pick one to die. Just like Grandma, she said, and even though I told her that that was not how it worked – that no-one got to pick that kind of thing – I picked one anyway. I chose the one I thought she liked the least. I think it was a hairdresser. She wore tight, pink leggings.
I re-enacted what had happened at the funeral as best as I could remember it, but I added bits to it too, tried to make it fun. Lowered her down from a plastic tree house and then had her slide down the ramp of a Fisher-Price multi-storey car park. We put her in a shoebox then and buried her in a far corner of our back garden. Said a prayer. Good night, Barbie.
And my sister was happy.
Claire had a hamster, and the following year that hamster died. Claire was convinced it was cancer. That’s how all people die, she said. He went thin, she said, just like Grandma had. I don’t remember that. We gave him a funeral too.
Claire spent a morning decorating his shoebox casket. She used markers and highlighters Dad had brought home from work for us. She drew flowers on it, and a picture of his bowl because he loved that, she said. She made it bright.
We buried him near Hairdresser Barbie’s grave. This time Claire said the prayer. Good night, she said. And she was happy again.
At school, next term, I learned about hibernation. It gave me nightmares.
If someone had asked me a week ago what my sister’s favourite things were I’d have struggled to tell them. It had been a long time since we’d spoken. I hadn’t met my nephew. He’s nine.
It’s funny how bad news can sharpen memories. They flooded into me as though they were being pumped through pipes. And I remembered:
Marker pens and felt-tips
Tap dancing shoes
New Kids on The Block
Drawing on caskets
and waving sparklers on bonfire night.
Nothing much after she grew up though. Those memories weren’t there to start off with.
And that’s why I painted her coffin. That’s why a Barbie doll and tap shoes were balanced on its top, in a row, along with a cassette tape and a pack of felt-tip pens. I didn’t have access to all of her stuff. Some of it I bought from Tesco.
And that’s why I lit a sparkler for a nine year old boy, standing on muddy ground, who didn’t understand why Mum and Dad weren’t coming back. I would explain it to him but I’m worried he’ll think that everyone dies in cars. And that, simply, isn’t true.